Do the words “Cape Cod” conjure long lines of traffic, sunburns, and knickknack shops? Well, nowadays it also boasts fine-dining restaurants, tiny rum distilleries, and great art along with its knockout seashore, wildlife sanctuaries, and killer seafood. And let’s not forget that you can pull your own oysters straight from the sea.
Writer, Real Simple digital food editor, and (full disclosure!) friend Sarah Karnasiewicz has been visiting Cape Cod every summer, she laughs, since she was “in the womb.” Her parents honeymooned there, and her family has been going to the Cape—as it’s known to locals—for half a century. Now they own and rent their home to summer travelers, but Karnasiewicz can’t stay away, and visits several times annually: “I love its wildness, hidden pockets of serenity, beauty, and quirkiness. I need it in my life.” Here are a few of her top Cape Cod hacks—no Red Sox hat required:
Related: Nantucket Travel Guide
Get a license to pluck oysters and clams right from the water
“People should remember that often they can get a shellfish license at the same place where you get beach stickers,” says Karnasiewicz. “In Wellfleet, it entitles you to open clamming, oystering, everything two days a week—Wednesdays and Sundays.” In that town, the license costs only $30 for seasonal residents. “You might not catch that much the first time,” she warns, “but the things you do catch will feel hard-earned—and give you a chance to have your Cape Cod experience right from the water.”
Learn about modern architecture
Art and architecture nerds that the Cape is a bastion of the mid-century modern design movement, but you can dig a lot deeper thanks to the Cape Cod Modern House Trust, says Karnasiewicz. The organization is devoted to the Outer Cape’s exceptional modern architecture, and to the architects and designers—Breuer, Weidlinger, and Saarinen, among others—who gathered here in summer cottages and eventually built their own homes. The Trust hosts frequent events, says Karnasiewicz, including house tours, and if you drive to their headquarters, they’ll give you a map “so you can peek at those houses from the street!”
Related: Cape Cod Travel Guide
Go off the map
Speaking of which, sometimes—especially if you ignore what GPS tells you and start wending your way down the tiny back roads, you’ll spy markers for some of these homes. By leaving the main, safe roads, you’ll also encounter some of the region’s beautiful, intimate kettle ponds.
Find your own kettle pond
Everyone knows about the Cape’s sprawling beaches, but if you’re more of a lake person, don’t fret: The Cape’s nearly 20 kettle ponds, formed by glaciers 15 years ago, are gorgeous, too, and a lovely freshwater alternative for those tired of the sea. Gull Pond and Long Pond are popular among families, but if you leave the main roads and explore logging roads and little dirt roads, says Karnasiewicz, you “won’t have the conveniences of larger ponds like parking lots or bathrooms, but you’ll have them all to yourself.” You can also, she says, “pond hop between them” if you’ve brought good walking shoes.
Go to a beach bum bar
“No summer would be complete for me without a sugary Goombay Smash at the raw bar of the Beachcomber,” in Wellfleet, says Karnasiewicz. The beach bar—one of America’s best—has been there for ages, and the point is to “drink superstrong tropical drinks at the raw bar and stand around in your bathing suit shoulder-to-shoulder with families, old drunks, college kids, and everybody.”
Have one fancy meal
The Cape isn’t all fried clams and lobster rolls, though it certainly has those in spades. “For a totally different type of dining experience,” says Karnasiewicz, “if you’re getting sick of clam chowder and lobster rolls and fried clams, Ceraldi is a nice palate cleanser for a special night out.” With its seven-course prix fixe menu and setting down on an old wharf in Wellfleet, it feels, she says, “quite intimate.” Expect dishes like hay-smoked local oysters or a seared local monkfish with a lobster reduction. Sit at the bar for a better view of the chef plating and the sun setting.
Invest in a good shucker
At some point during your visit, you’re going to want to just stay at your rental, kick back with a bottle of Champagne, Muscadet, or Chablis, and plate your own local oysters or clams on a bed of ice. So come to the Cape with your own shucker—and make sure it’s a good one.
Drink artisanal rum in a bucolic setting
A recently opened rum distillery—an offshoot of Truro Vineyards in Truro—makes excellent rum called Twenty Boat, and offers mixed drinks and tastings in the afternoon at al fresco picnic tables. A food truck on the premises hawks fried chicken sandwiches from local Blackfish restaurants, and because of the gorgeous, grassy setting, says Karnasiewicz, both kids and dogs love it.
Boats and bikes will get you pretty far
On a tight budget, or loathe traffic? Boats can get you to Provincetown at the most southern end of the Cape, and if you decide to largely stay put, a bike can get you most places you want to be. If you’re in good shape and are staying close to the beach, says Karnasiewicz, you can get around pretty easily. (You’re about an hour and a half ride from Provincetown to Wellfleet.) And although flying in is very expensive—a nonstop flight from JFK to Provincetown for a June weekend costs more than $3,000—the boat from Boston is a mere $58 for a one-way trip, and you can skip all the traffic.
Don’t drive on turnover day
“Driving on Saturdays is always a bad idea because that’s turnover day for most weekly rentals,” says Karnasiewicz. “It’s really hard to avoid the traffic on the outer Cape especially,” she points out, “so try and plan so you don’t have to do anything on Route 6 in the middle of the day.” Since that’s the sole road that curls down the length of the Cape, “having to make a left-hand turn on route 6 could take a really long time.” Avoid leaving mainland Massachusetts after 2pm on a summer Friday, or you can double or triple your travel time.
Remember to kayak
Ocean kayaking doesn’t have to be scary. If you stay close to Duck Beach and Great Island, the waves are smaller, the views are incredible and you can see the sun set over the water to your west.
You don’t have to see the Whole Cape
Only have a few days to see Cape Cod? Karnasiewicz will admit she’s biased, but she hugely prefers the Outer Cape: “Wellfleet, Truro, and Provincetown are, in my opinion, the soul of the Cape.” You can, she thinks, “skip the bottom part.”
Eat the bellies
With its weatherbeaten dock, Karnasiewicz’s favorite place to eat fried clams is Mac’s on the Wellfleet pier, where you can gaze out at the water while you eat. And don’t wimp out and order clam strips instead of the real deal: “You need to get the whole belly clams,” she says sternly. “People know this, right? Don’t be that person.”